PhD highlight series: Miss Daisy Shearer (#4)

Today on the PhD Superheroes we have Miss Daisy Shearer. She is a researcher and science communicator interested in making physics more accessible. In this interview, Daisy shares her views on neurodivergent people in STEM and her experiences doing a PhD as an autistic person.

Enjoy the read!

 Quick notes on Daisy:
NameMiss Daisy Shearer
Countries she has academic experiences fromEngland
Daisy in keywordsCreative, honest, thorough
Daisy as a scientist/researcher/academicPersistent, detailed, enthusiastic
Currently excited about:My favourite book I read recently is Camilla Pang’s ‘Explaining Humans’
Daisy’s typical day:        I get up and have a cuppa and then head into the lab. I usually spend most of the morning setting up an experiment and analysing data. In the afternoon, I like to write my thesis or work on papers and read the latest literature in my field while monitoring experiments. Some days it’s a simulation rather than an experiment in the lab.
Contact Daisy at:Insta: @notesfromthephysicslab
Twitter: @QuantumDaisy
Web: www.DaisyShearer.com
Blog: www.NotesFromThePhysicsLab.com
LinkedIn: Daisy Shearer

Hi Daisy, Thank you so much for agreeing to contribute to this project!

Could you introduce yourself briefly?

Hello! I’m Daisy Shearer. I am a PhD candidate in experimental condensed matter physics at the University of Surrey. My research is in the field of quantum technology, specifically a subfield called ‘semiconductor spintronics’.

I’m passionate about science communication and inclusive pedagogy and have been talking about my research online for a few years now in the hope that I can demystify what physics research is like and make physics concepts more accessible!

What kind of student/pupil were you as a kid?

I was always a quiet student and a good all-rounder. I always enjoyed learning- especially when it was about understanding the world around me in a tangible way.

I also liked working with numbers and using maths to describe the physical world. I didn’t get on so well socially at school and often felt quite lonely, but I always had books to keep me company.

What did you study in your undergrad program and how was your experience?

My undergraduate degree was an integrated master’s degree which is a four-year program that encompasses BSc and MSc level study along with a year-long research placement. My degree was an MPhys (Hons) in physics and I did it at the University of Surrey (UK) (I’ve been studying here since 2014!).

I really enjoyed undergraduate study in terms of the content. I’d chosen to go for the straight ‘physics’ route so that I would have the flexibility to choose any optional module that I fancied. As it happened, I ended up taking all the modules in the ‘physics with quantum technology’ route.

For my research placement, I spent 9 months working as an R&D intern at the Centre for Integrated Photonics where I was working on developing next-generation electroabsorption modulated lasers for long-haul telecommunications. This experience gave me a taste of solid-state physics research and made me realise that I wanted to primarily be a researcher as a career.

Why and how did you decide to go into a PhD?

Mostly because I wanted to develop my research skills. Some of my colleagues at my internship encouraged me to look for PhDs in quantum technology and advised me that it was probably the best route for me to get into this kind of research full-time.

I applied to a variety of interesting looking projects across the UK but settled on the one that the University of Surrey had offered as it was the most interesting to me. I guess this isn’t all that surprising as the research interests of groups at the Advanced Technology Institute (where I now work as a postgraduate researcher) were one of the many reasons I applied to Surrey for undergraduate study.

How is your PhD program structured?

As far as I’m aware, it’s the usual structure for a PhD in the UK: a 3-4-year research project that is self-directed, so you start as soon as you begin with no preliminary classes.

At the one-year point, I had to go through the ‘confirmation process’ which consisted of a report and short viva with internal academics who assessed whether I could progress with my PhD. At this point, you can be directed towards an MPhil qualification if you don’t pass.

My university has 6-monthly progress reviews and then a thesis submission and viva at the end which is the next main hurdle for me (I’m aiming for getting my thesis submitted next summer so we’ll see how that goes!).

I am keeping my fingers crossed for a smooth ride! 😉

How would you describe your relationship with your supervisors?

I work closely with my primary supervisor and occasionally consult with my secondary supervisor. We get on well on the whole and like to bounce ideas off each other to develop our research projects further and consolidate our understanding of our work.

What is your overall PhD program experience like?

I really enjoy being a PhD student! I have had some trouble with my mental health, but this has been greatly impacted by the pandemic and I had been diagnosed with various conditions prior to my PhD so I knew I’d have to manage them throughout.

My research is fairly self-contained but I still get to work with colleagues on a variety of things. For example, learning how to do various experimental techniques, doing wire bonding, and collaborating on fabrication of new devices. I also collaborate with colleagues at other universities and have been able to travel abroad to the Netherlands to carry out some of my experiments.

I’m mostly focused on studying spin-orbit interaction in InSb quantum wells (a structure that consists of layering semiconductor materials that creates a region where electrons are confined to move in just two dimensions) and finding ways to control electron spin in these structures through the fabrication of various nanostructures.

I’m particularly looking at mask-less ‘direct-write’ fabrication techniques like focused ion beam milling (fabrication methods that don’t require an expensive photomask – instead, milling and deposition of material is carried out directly onto the sample surface) which allow us to develop new devices very quickly without the need to produce an expensive photomask. I’m currently developing fabrication methods for making quantum wires and quantum point contacts from InSb quantum wells.

Alongside this, I’m investigating a property called the Rashba interaction in the quantum wells and carry out simulations of various associated nanostructures. This gives us insight into the fundamental quantum physics that governs the behaviour of electrons in these materials.

Due to the pandemic, my project had to become more modeling-heavy as I didn’t have as much access to the lab as I would have needed to complete all of the experiments in our initial plan, but I am now back in the lab a few times a week.

PhD snapshots

What advice would you give your younger self starting a PhD program?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Also, keep your literature and lab diary well organized and create structure for yourself.

If you feel comfortable, would you like to comment on your experience of doing a PhD as an autistic person?

Sure! I think that it does come with some challenges but I also know lots of autistic people who have done PhDs and are working in research and as academics—the neurotype can be really well suited to science and research.

I was diagnosed when I was 21, about 9 months before I started my PhD. I didn’t disclose to my supervisor up-front, but a few months in it was evident that it would be best if I did disclose as to support my cognitive processing style. I work with a specialist mentor who is an autism expert and she helps me with autism-related challenges and with requesting reasonable adjustments.

One thing that I think has been particularly challenging as an autistic person is the lack of structure in a PhD. Transitioning to a heavily timetabled undergraduate schedule to a more self-directed work schedule was not easy for me.

I now have quite a strict timetable for myself which is based off what I call a ‘skeleton routine’ to keep things consistent from day to day while allowing for some flexibility in my work (you can read more about this here).

On the other hand, I’m very lucky to be studying a subject that lies within one of my autistic special interests—applied quantum mechanics. This means that I can become incredibly focused on the subject and produce a high output in a short amount of time. I also think that the way my brain is wired means I am good at creative problem solving and it helps me see patterns and connections in the literature and my data as well as giving me a different perspective on my work from my colleagues.

I really do believe that neurominorites have something unique to offer science and research more broadly.

Having diverse research teams leads to better science, and neurodiversity should be included within that!

What have you decided to do after your PhD and why?

After my PhD, I’d like to go and work at a national lab or maybe do a postdoc. I’m interested in transitioning in industry to work in quantum tech R&D (like I was doing on my master’s placement) while doing some guest lecturing and expanding my science communication freelance work.

What PhD has given you?

My PhD has given me so many skills and experience in all kinds of research. From experimental physics to engineering to materials science to computational physics I’ve developed skills and knowledge that I can take forward with me during my career.

It’s also given me resilience and an ability to adapt in ways that I couldn’t before, especially in light of the pandemic and its impact.

My project has changed considerably in the last year due to an inability to access laboratories when we were in lockdown periods. As such, I had to adapt from a primarily experimental research project to doing more computational modelling. I think that anyone who has been doing their PhD over the last year has demonstrated that we can adapt our working practices in the face of unexpected circumstances.

What are your other superpowers?

I do a lot of science communication online, which includes my blog and various other writing, which you can read about here. In my spare time, I’m a keen gardener and baker. I’ve also recently taken up knitting!

Baking carrot cake, my garden, knitting an Aran cardigan

Wow! These creations are gorgeous!

If you could teach people one thing, what would it be?

I’d teach people about quantum mechanics and how we are already using quantum technology every day—our understanding of quantum is what has enabled us to develop the internet and the transistor which is the basis of most electronics. So, you can thank quantum technology for your smartphone!

Who are the people you follow on social media and enjoy they content and why?

There are so many amazing scientists who I follow on social media! I don’t think I can narrow it down to any accounts in particular. I like content related to experimental physics and solid-state physics. My favourite kinds of posts are beautiful photos of experimental set-ups.

What are your future plans, upcoming projects, what is next?

My main focus at the moment is on finishing my PhD and publishing papers!

Apart from that, I’m hoping to post more regularly on my blog and continue working on the neurodivergent in STEM project in the near future.

Where people can find you?

Insta: @notesfromthephysicslab

Twitter: @QuantumDaisy

Web: www.DaisyShearer.com

Blog: www.NotesFromThePhysicsLab.com

LinkedIn: Daisy Shearer

Thank you!


You can read more stories of PhD students here:

PhD heighlight series: Ms Leanne Faulkner (#3)

PhD heighlight series: Ms Anupa Pathak (#2)

PhD highlight series: Mr Reuben Holmes (#1)

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